5th - 20th March 2004
The day before we left Litang it snowed, dusting the surrounding hills with white.
For a few happy kilometers the road ran flat across a dusty plain dotted with grazing animals, then it was up and over a low pass, topped by a monastery and overlooked by a hill bedecked with prayer flags.
By the end of our first day we were climbing a picturesque valley towards the first high pass.
The next day we pedalled up into a dramatic environment of rocky ridges and a howling headwind.
We crossed the first pass about 2pm, 4740m. It was only a couple of hundred meters down into the valley and we should have camped there, but the next pass looked tantalisingly close so we pedalled on up to it. Big mistake! It wasn't the summit, rather it was the start of a 10km stretch of bleak, exposed riding into a cruel headwind at around 4700m altitude. We had only a couple of litres of water so we needed to find more to camp, and we needed some shelter from the wind. Mark was for pushing on and on, but eventually sense prevailed and we camped in a gravel scoop by the road and melted snow for water. Unsurprisingly it was a cold night, but the full moon was beautiful.
Next day we descended (pedalling against the wind most of the way) to a village called Sangdui where we found a friendly Tibetan family running a truckstop. We spent two days there recovering our strength, Ju fought off a cold and Mark spent a day in bed with a migrane. Then we were off again and up to the highest pass of the trip, 4870m, slightly higher than Mt Blanc! This pass proved to be a weather boundary, on the southern side the air was immediately warmer and blue skies prevailed.
From there it was all downhill to Xiangcheng, a pleasant Tibetan / Chinese town where we spent an afternoon washing our clothes and going round the market buying food for the following days. From Xiangcheng the road went up and up in three big zig-zags. At the end of a long day we had covered 24km and gained 1100m, but were only 5km from Xiangcheng! We camped and finished the climb in the morning.
But the pass was a good one, festooned with a riot of prayer flags.
One more pass (where we camped on the top and were snowed on) and then we started to lose height in earnest. As we descended we found trees just coming into leaf, green fields and apricot blossom. It was spring!
From Derong the high passes were over, but for 80km we had to endure a bumpy dirt road (hopefully soon to be surfaced, see Cycling in Sichuan). How we love tarmac! We joined the Yangtze and witnessed Chinese road crews blasting new roads along its precipitous sides and building a bridge. On the second day we discovered that an annoying squeaking was due to Mark's front rack having cracked. Luckily it wasn't serious and could be temporarily repaired with a toothbrush!
Then we climbed our last pass, Shangrila, a mere 3100m.
Near Zhongdian we passed Napa Lake, and experienced something we hadn't had for weeks - and hadn't missed a bit - rain!
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